“There is a nobility in compassion, a beauty in empathy and a grace in forgiveness” – novelist John Connolly.
A world full of beauty… a world full of misery… In everyday life, we are surrounded by bad news from the media and people we know, whether it’s death, disease, a natural disaster, or just the news of a friend who’s lost a job. This sometimes puts us in a difficult position. Should we feel sorry, vulnerable or resigned? Do we express our thoughts and emotions or stay neutral? Is there a golden rule?
How to respond really depends on the situation itself. What we do know is that empathy can be the key to greater understanding and better communication with others.
What is empathy?
Empathy is believed to be a physical process in human beings, one that’s evident when we reach for a box of tissues during an emotional Finding Nemo scene, or when we break down after hearing that a beloved family member has advanced cancer. We have the ability to extend ourselves and feel someone else’s experience as our own.
It is the power of recognising a part of ourselves in another. Nevertheless, we might find ourselves mistrusting, detaching, shutting down and remaining self-focused. In an attempt to "protect" ourselves from other people’s dramas, we may give in to easier solutions like sympathy and misjudgement.
Sympathy vs. empathy?
By being sympathetic, we express some emotions that show concern but don’t necessarily reveal a genuine sense of caring. This is probably how the majority of us react whilst listening to a news report about people in a faraway country who have suffered an earthquake, for example. We might feel sorry for their situation but in a more detached way.
To genuinely empathise we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, see eye to eye and feel heart to heart with the other person. Of course, we need to find a balance: if we empathise with every sad story, we can start to develop compassion fatigue.
When your friend starts talking about her breakup, instead of judging or providing advice or “at least” solutions (such as “at least you found out sooner rather than later that he wasn’t worthy of you”), try this: spend your time with her, listening and asking thoughtful questions to try to understand her position. Use your heart and not just your head, because that’s what most of us need in a vulnerable moment: to be listened to and not judged or guided.
Or, let’s say your manager launches an angry outburst towards you. At first, this aggressive style will probably irritate you, but try to take a closer look. Your manager has a lot of stress to deal with on a daily basis, right? Their aggressive style might indicate that they feel overwhelmed or defeated. By adopting an empathic mentality – and having clear boundaries as well – you will feel more relaxed, and there will be better communication between the two of you.
Embracing our empathetic nature
Empathy is an integral part of our work in counselling. I believe we wouldn’t be doing our jobs right without this very important soft skill. We are here to see the problem through the other person’s eyes, to really understand and reassure, and to help find the best solution for them.
Empathy, a pure and deep connection, can work miracles in human relations, because it shares the message “I understand. You are not alone.” As we try to better understand the people we interact with, we come a step closer to better communities and more serene lives. So give it a try… starting now!
With thanks to Dimiliana Nikiforou for her contribution to this article.
What has helped you develop empathy towards others? How important do you think empathy is? Please share your tips below!